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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Greens Keeper Season Extender

When your cold frame is frozen shut with ice, 
it may feel like season extension has come to a close.

Enter: the "greens keeper" in your fridge.

I do not know why these work so well -- or why they cost so much. However, I do know they are worth every penny. (No, I do not sell Tupperware... I just grow fond of things that work really well in my kitchen.)

Traditionally, the lettuce keepers were shaped to fit a head of iceberg lettuce. As all foraging gardeners know, this shape does not necessarily match the dimensions of the goodies we bring into the kitchen.

Instead, the old style rectangular celery keepers work great, or the fancy new veggie keepers with either one or two vents to open or close, depending on what kind of food you are keeping.

In the dead of winter, the greens from my garden are as crisp as the day I picked them -- as long as I have remembered to pick them before the first deep freeze. I missed a lot of greens this year because the weather turned so cold so fast. I'm grateful for what I did harvest, though. My last harvest day was November 9th, and most of these greens were picked in the week before that, all from protected beds. A month after being picked, they are still in perfect condition (above). 

Today it occurs to me that a lettuce keeper and a cold frame have a lot more in common than you might think. Using either a cold frame outdoors or a greens keeper in the fridge, the process hinges on:
  1. Growing your plants so that they reach maturity in the fall. (Either way, having winter greens in a Northern climate is not about planting seeds in autumn... it's about planting them in July.)
  2. Protecting plants from a killing freeze.
  3. Maintaining (not really growing) fresh mature plants so that they can be eaten during winter.

♢     ♢     ♢     ♢     ♢     

My experience so far shows the following results...

Greens that last exceptionally long in a veggie keeper:

✯   Kale   ✯   Swiss Chard   ✯   Many lettuce varieties  ✯  Dark purple beet greens

Greens that keep reasonably long:

✯ Green Orach
Regular Beet greens
✯ Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth leaves
✯ Chives
 ✯ Carrot greens
 Some lettuce varieties

Greens that must be kept separate because they are the first to go:

✯ French sorrel

Of course you can use these keepers for other veggies such as carrots and celery, but I find those do fine in the crisper drawer of the fridge. For the valuable real estate inside my keepers, I prioritize greens.

♢     ♢     ♢     ♢     ♢     

Food for Thought:

As exciting as it is to have food alive and growing in December 
even after a hardcore freeze 
-- and yes, this means a lot to me --

For the volume of greens I am keeping alive in my cold frame this winter and for the amount of work that went into this project...

A greens keeper can actually hold quite a lot
(And I have several -- mostly second-hand purchases, a couple bought new)

I'm willing to acknowledge the square footage and work vs. yield ratio, but I'm not giving up the underground cold frame for anything. It's too much fun having live plants outdoors during winter! There is no plastic needed for cold frames, they don't take up space in your fridge, and they require no electricity. I'm also learning that you can transplant a higher number of plants into the cold frame in autumn: each plant does not need a lot of space as they are not doing much growing during winter. This practice would increase the yield. 

Plus in the spring, the cold frame will begin to produce 
before anything else even gets started. I can't wait...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Honeyboat Ride

Once upon a time, our friend John came to visit for Thanksgiving. He was working on an organic farm and brought along a honeyboat squash to share. As soon as I ate it, I knew it was the ultimate squash.

We saved seeds from the honeyboat, in an attempt to grow some ourselves. The plant was vigorous and the blossoms were so beautiful that they attracted fairies to the garden.

Unfortunately, the squash from which we saved the seeds had hybridized with a neighboring plant, and the fruit (below) tasted, well... borderline edible. Fawn and I learned an important lesson about seed saving and hybridizing that year!

Despite its lack of service on the dinner table, the hybrid squash plant was gorgeous, and we especially enjoyed the twisty spiral tendrils that year. However, it is always even better if we can eat food from the plants we grow.

This past growing season I decided to buy honeyboat seeds, 
and it was worth every penny.

I'm pretty sure I will never need to grow another variety of squash again! 
Here's why:

Honeyboat squash is a wonderful addition to any meal, 
but it's also sweet enough to eat for dessert! 

Halved, it fits perfectly in my 7x11" baking pan, which fits in my convection toaster oven. This size makes them naturally "individually packaged," meaning that you are not faced with a big squash project after cutting one open. 

You can see from the oblong shape and stripes that it's a delicata-type squash. 

Note that it still tastes great even when marred by rodents, which all of my squashes and pumpkins were. As a result my harvest may not live up to its storage reputation this year... so I'm enjoying them now.

It's easy to separate the seeds from the flesh, by pulling the 
seeds out with a spoon before scraping the insides clean...

...and they are delicious toasted in the cast iron skillet with a little salt and olive oil!
(not to mention the seeds provide great fatty acids, protein, Vitamin K, iron, phosphorus, etc. for your body to use)

You have to admit, it does look like a honey boat (dugout style).

Being a winter squash, I'm guessing it is a good source of:
• Vitamin A (super duper)
•  Vitamin C
•  Potassium
•  Manganese
•  Vitamin E
Vitamin B complex
• Calcium
• Magnesium
• Iron
• Fiber 
and lots more excellent nutrients

Even though our first attempt to grow honeyboat didn't work out for eating (due to hybridization of the saved seed), I'm super glad we tried. Otherwise I might have missed seeing this fairy as she soaked up the beauty of the blossoms. The experience also helped build a foundation for Fawn's understanding of plant reproduction, and sparked her investigation of potential hybridization of other plants, which she did as part of her Grade 3 home study curriculum. 

I'm very happy with this variety of winter squash, so I thought I'd share some of the reasons why. I tried honeybear the growing season before last and it was good, but honeyboat still takes the cake for me. 

Thank you so much, John E, for introducing us to this fantastic garden food!

What is your favorite winter squash?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Harvest Time ~ 2014

The garden has been good to us this year, and the rotting wood has come through with some delicious and nutritious food to eat. (This photo is from October.)

Fawn helped haul the potatoes up to the house in her wagon. It took two of us to get it up the hill!

The carrots didn't seem to mind hugelkultur at all...

...they just kept right on growing!

I was happy to discover some one-clove garlic heads again in the garden this year. Does anybody know if this is a specific garlic variety or if it is just a mutation? Despite being fall-planted, they came up much later than the rest of garlic and I didn't harvest them till November 11th.

This mild autumn has been great for the tomatoes. I still had to ripen every tomato indoors, because the chipmunks eat them otherwise. This beefsteak tomato was ripened indoors in November and still tasted delicious. I have found that the key is to bring tomatoes in only after they change from green to pale yellow. Any sooner, and they don't ripen nearly as nicely since they are not mature enough.

Radishes seem to do best in early spring and late fall. They are perfect right now! I pulled the last of the radishes out today, since all the plants had finally completely frozen.

These unripe chocolate cherry tomatoes reminded me of grapes.

Fawn and her sunflower umbrella

Perhaps the final garden harvest, except for the underground cold frame and the kale. Today I picked swiss chard, cabbage, the last of the onions, my one beet that survived the marmots, and anything else that had eeked out its last few weeks with the help of some old sheets for cover. I look forward to more harvesting next year! 

It's always hard to say goodbye to the year's iteration of the garden, knowing it will never be the same again... but that is also the fun and joy of this process.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fall Garden

Last year, a few vegetable plants persisted into autumn, and I was hooked on the idea of having a fall garden. The weather this season has been outstanding, and after a first light frost on September 11, it has been surprisingly mild. It was the perfect year for having a fall garden!

Sometimes poppy seeds germinate partway through the summer and provide the most wonderful fall colors. Someday I should plant them with the fall garden seeds on purpose!

The marigolds just keep giving. 
Even the bolted lettuce seems beautiful this time of year... it won't last long now. 

I didn't realize the roses could keep going for so long...

A single radish with lots of room and no crowding can create some neat patterns... and the blueberries provide wonderful autumn color.

Nasturtiums are quickly becoming one of my favorite flowers, and the asparagus plants turn a lovely shade of gold this time of year.

Kale makes the fall garden feel really productive with its beefy, hardy leaves.

Rainbow swiss chard, another star in the fall garden, has made up about 50% of our salad greens lately. It is surprisingly tender, ever since the weather turned cool.

Another plant that is winning my heart with it's profuse sprays of fuchsia colored blooms ~ Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth. The leaves have been making up the other 50% of our salad greens these days.

What are your favorite fall garden plants?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Underground Cold Frame Part II

The Hugel Cold Frame Process Continues...

This post follows up on the start of the story, "Underground Cold Frame Part I." I was surprised to review the original post, as I had kind of forgotten just how much prep went into the initial stages!

This was the state of the rock work when my good friend and garden buddy, Lee, came over and helped me during September. The idea behind using large rock is that the rocks may act as heat batteries and moderate the temperature swings between day and night. Being sunken underground, the earth should also help moderate temperature changes. And with a little luck, the piles of rotting wood and horse manure underneath might help generate some warmth to help extend the growing season (see previous post for a visual on what lies below).

For the cold frame window structure, we used a mix of very weathered old boards and freshly milled spruce from Lee's property in Wauconda, hot off of my husband Bob's mill. He invited me to use whatever wood I'd like from the milled spruce -- an offer I couldn't pass up. Thanks, Bob!

Lee quickly realized that my design concept would have some serious weaknesses. He suggested we build a frame with the lumber nailed together on end, which I now realize makes a lot more sense than trying to join horizontal pieces with corner gussets. Thanks for setting me straight, Lee -- literally! I am really fortunate for the friends I have.

Here is the base frame, built from 2x6's.

We laid it in place, just to have a look and figure out the next steps.

Next we filled in the horizontal space to accommodate the size of the window that my Dad had given me. I wanted the frame to have an overhang on the Northeast end, since that would give me more real estate inside the cold frame and would not impact the available sunlight due to the angle of the sun.

Testing it out to see how it feels! Yep, if I were a plant, I could definitely grow here. 

We laid the window in place and I realized that I needed more of an angle to set the box on, to allow more sunlight to reach the bottom. A bunch more rock work followed during the next couple of weeks, building up the Northeast end to be quite a bit higher than the Southwest end.

After creating the best angle I could, I transplanted some swiss chard, lettuce, and sweetloaf chicory into the soil, and mulched it with cardboard and garden clippings. As you can see, there is still an issue with the depth of the pit blocking sunlight, depending on the time of day.

However, the plants are doing well. Now that it's October and the ambient temperatures have dropped considerably, it is pleasantly shocking to reach down into this space and feel the warm, moist air greeting me.

I placed some blankets on the outside of the rockwork for the time being, and over time will try to grow moss in between the rocks for insulation. This has been a great learning opportunity and I can't wait to build more cold frames in the future!

Have you experimented with underground cold frames or underground greenhouses? 
I'd love to hear about it in the comment section below!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Beauty Among Food

Take a break from the work of harvest and preservation 
to notice the beauty that marks this time of year...

The aspen hotbed continues to provide color as well as good eating. 
This is the time of year for soaking it up!

I have been covering the garden in old sheets every night this week and it seems to be helping. We also have great sun exposure for nurturing a garden, and of course literally tons of wood and manure cooking beneath the ground. We had a freeze on September 11th and then things warmed up substantially... however, it has been close to freezing the last couple of nights.

Our friends the bumblebees are still hard at work... we are so lucky to have them!

This bumblebee fits just right in the center of the pumpkin blossom.
(Pumpkins, it's a little late to be putting out blossoms!)

Swiss chard is proving to be one of our most consistent, robust fall crops. I could not resist laying this leaf on the autumn-blooming chrysanthemums. They were a Mother's Day gift one year in a one gallon pot, and now they form a hedge of radiant globes.

Another friend of the garden we are always happy to see...
(on the asparagus)

These roses were a Valentine's gift from my husband and 
daughter and they are giving color well beyond summer.

It boggles my mind that this huge plant with cascading magenta blooms has grown from one tiny seed. When I first heard about Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth and the fresh greens it provides, I knew I had to try growing it... but I had no idea how beautiful it would be.

And last but not least -- peekaboo!